(Christine Hurt is an Assistant Professor of Law at Marquette University Law School and a member of The Conglomerate.)
This recurring question of whether first-year law students should apply to be a member of a law review has three dimensions: (1) What are the tangible benefits of being on any law review; (2) what are the intangible benefits of being on any law review and (3) What are the benefits of being on the main law review as opposed to a specialty law journal.
(1) From reading law students posts on this topic, I sense that law students try to view law review membership through a cost-benefit lens. Will the amount of hours that I put into this project yield a proportionate benefit, namely getting a better legal job or a judicial clerkship? I do not have a good answer for that.
I know from participating in law school hiring at a large law firm that law review is generally seen as a proxy for grades or at least intellectual achievement. If you are in the top 10% of your class, then you can play basketball all day long if you want to and still get a law firm job. If you are not in the top 10% of your class, then membership on a law review signals to employers that you can write well and think well. So, if you want to get a law firm job, law review will give your grades a boost, but it generally is a neutral item if your grades are stellar.
However, law review membership is important for other types of law jobs, namely judicial clerkships and law teaching jobs. First, you will have a great writing sample if you take your note seriously that a judge will like to see. No other document you create in law school will be as scholarly, as thoroughly researched, and as polished. Secondly, law review membership will signal to these groups that you are an intellectual, that you enjoy writing, and that you are able to analyze issues on a policy level. I do think that law teaching candidates who did not show some interest during law school in scholarly writing have a hard time convincing employers years later that they developed that intellectual curiosity in practice.
Lastly, law review membership has symbolic meaning to all future employers. From a large law firm to an appellate court judge to a law school appointments committee, prospective employers want to hire people who do not view all projects through a cost-benefit lens. Employees who try to discern whether putting in extra time on this brief is merited given their flat salary are not stellar employees. In the law teaching realm, professors who realize that they will get paid virtually the same whether they invest 10 hours a week prepping their classes or 100 are not going to be the best professors. In addition, writing scholarly articles usually does not pass the cost-benefit test either, especially after a professor is tenured.
Employers like to see individuals who invest themselves in projects because they enjoy the work and strive to do well. This quality also prompts employers to ask if you had an editorial position. Employers don't truly believe that being an Articles Editor gives you a leg up in the practice of law; they want to know if you are the kind of person that likes to climb ladders that are put in front of them. For good or ill, employers look for Type A qualities.
(2) As to the intangible benefits of being on any law review, I can say that I learned more being an editor on the Texas Journal of Women and the Law than I learned in any law school class. I learned a lot about the law, about argumentation, about legal analysis, and about writing. If you do want to go into law teaching some day, then law journal work can be helpful. You will meet law professors from other schools, host symposia, and read the works of the leading law professors of the day. You will also learn to write well, which is a skill that is difficult to acquire in law school classes.
(3) Obviously, only membership on law reviews that are perceived to select students with good grades can work as a proxy for good grades. However, if you have good grades, then you may be able to choose the law journal that most interests you. The intangible benefits will be equivalent at any law journal. However, I would choose one that is sufficiently well-established to have good papers to edit and publish. Some specialty journals don't publish that often and scramble for good papers, so you will get less experience. I chose after my first year of law school not to do the write-on at Texas, which was mandatory even for students in the top 10%, but instead to hold an editorial position as a second-year student on the law journal that ten or so other women and I had started during our first year (Texas Journal of Women and the Law). I remember a fellow student tell me that this decision would "ruin my life."
I am happy to say that it did not, although I have probably had to answer the "why weren't you on TLR" question way too many times.